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McFeatters: Syria is becoming a training ground for Islamic radicals

A Syrian boy shouts slogans against Bashar al-Assad

A Syrian boy shouts slogans against Bashar al-Assad in front of a flag of the armed Islamic opposition group, the Nusra front, during a demonstration in the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria. (Sept. 21, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

To bring Syria's civil war to a quick conclusion, the United States and Western Europe may have to rethink their tepid support for the rebels.

Why? If recent intelligence reports are accurate, the war is becoming a training ground for would-be radical jihadists drawn there both to help oust discredited Syrian President Bashar Assad and to obtain military training and combat experience.

This potentially bodes trouble down the road in the form of terrorism against both the West and moderate Muslim governments, our experience with Islamic extremist training camps in Pakistan and in Afghanistan shows. The plan for 9/11 was hatched at one such Afghan camp.

Intelligence reports cited by The New York Times say that an increasing number of radicalized European Muslims are gravitating to Syria to join the rebels -- and that they have Western passports allowing them to travel freely in Europe and, in most cases, the United States. Intelligence officials told The Times that many more Westerners are now fighting in Syria than fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen -- though there is "no significant presence of foreign combatants of any stripe in Syria," The Times reported. It cited an activist's estimate of "far fewer than 1,000" foreign fighters.

One would think the development of radicalized European Muslims heading to Syria would interest the Russians, who had their own problems with radicalized foreigners fighting in Chechnya. The Russians have allied with the Assad government, but the war has spiraled past the point where the government, even with Russian help, could decisively and permanently crush the resistance.

The Times reports of growing concern that the radicalized Westerners "will come back with a burst of jihadist zeal, some semblance of military discipline, enhanced weapons and explosive skills, and, in the worst case, orders from affiliates of al-Qaida to carry out terrorist strikes." The dismaying fact is that this is not an implausible scenario.

Western intelligence agencies are gearing up to track individuals traveling to the region in an effort to cross into Syria. The Germans are trying to stop suspected radicals from leaving and the French are intercepting and detaining for extensive questioning those returnees suspected of having attended training camps or served in combat zones.

The only truly effective solution to this magnet for wandering radical jihadists is to bring the war to an end -- preferably by negotiation or, if not, by giving the rebels the means to prevail.

Dale McFeatters is a nationally syndicated columnist.